In 1993, Florence author Amelia Wallace Vernon revealed a history of rice cultivation in Florence County among a community of former slaves and sharecroppers in her book, African Americans at Mars Bluff, South Carolina. The book documents the names of rice farmers, the location of their fields and their unique methods for threshing and harvesting.
In late February of 1930, a twenty-nine year-old William H. Johnson packed up his belongings from his humble Harlem loft in New York and boarded a train for a visit to his hometown of Florence, SC. The man who was returning to Florence was very different from the boy who left in 1918. During his twelve-year absence from Florence, Johnson had studied under Charles Hawthorne at the National Academy of Design in New York.
The first known published mention that refers to this area as “Florence” appears in chapter nine of the book “Sketches and Reminiscences”. Joshua Hilary Hudson writes…”I was elected and on January 6, A.D. 1853, left Chester for Bennettsville. I spent the first night in Columbia by the South Carolina Railroad, I traveled to Kingsville, where I took the train of the Wilmington and Manchester Railroad and traveled as far as Florence, which was then a station in the pine forest without a depot, a rough board shelter being the only accommodation for passengers getting on and off there….”.
The city of Charleston introduced South Carolina to the railroad in 1827 when it formed the state’s first railroad company, The South Carolina Rail Road Company. The economically depressed city founded the railroad company in hopes to boost export revenue to the port city. The Charleston & Hamburg line was completed in 1831…
Florence native William Henry Johnson, although considered by academics to be a major figure in 20th century American Art, has somehow remained a relatively obscure figure to his hometown community. Over the course of his career, the output of William H. Johnson’s significant work numbered into the thousands. A little over 1500 known works whose whereabouts have been accounted for. His large body of work displays a virtuosic talent mastering a variety of styles while maintaining a powerful execution of unified expression. Behind the man’s fascinating body of work, lies a story that rivals the intrigue and complexity of his art. Sadly, this prolific artist continues to remain an unrecognized figure by the city that helped birth him. The Florence Museum has scoured all available resources to bring you this biography of William H. Johnson that details the artist’s earlier years in obscurity.
Accession records indicate that this 16mm film came into the Museum’s collection in the 1970’s during Dr. William Burns’ tenure as museum director. The film was donated by John Jebailey of Florence. Although we don’t know the specific details regarding the film’s origin, museum curatorial staff did learn that it was regularly shown at the old Colonial Theatre (located at 125 W. Evans St in what used to be the old City Hall building). The film highlights over 50 businesses, schools, & organizations in Florence during the year 1935. It is likely that each business paid a substantial fee to be featured in the film.
These fees were probably in turn used to help pay production costs. Regardless of the production’s original intent, the film now provides us with an interesting and rare technological glimpse into our town’s history during the early 20th century.